Critical valleys in drought and key issues

Climate overview

At the end of 2020 we had seen up to four years of drought across large parts of the state - worse than the 1940s drought or the Millennium drought in many areas. From February 2020 there was improvement in conditions, with only around 13% of the state still drought affected (in terms of rainfall, soil moisture and pasture growth) by end of October 2020, compared to 100% in early January 2020, although the north-west storages were still at low levels.

In 2019 conditions were drier and hotter than any other NSW drought in the last 120 years. From January 2017 to December 2019, rainfall was the lowest on record. The 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020 calendar years were among the warmest on record. Major rural NSW water storages are now approximately 50.7% of capacity (mid January 2021) compared to 24% in January 2020.

There has been a de-escalation of drought stages in all valleys with most now in normal operations, however the Border Rivers, Barwon-Darling, Lower Darling have still not fully recovered.

Drought stages summary, January 2021.

Northern basin overview

Inflows to each of the major northern inland NSW regulated rivers were the lowest on record in 2019. Northern inland NSW has experienced many two-year periods of sustained low inflows. 2019 saw an unprecedented third year of drought, with many storages in the north still at relatively low levels. There was no significant winter or spring rainfall in 2019 resulting in inflows, and inflows during 2020 into the storages have been welcome but not yet sufficient to return to normal operations in all the northern valleys.

Any new inflows to the northern basin since early-2018 were first preserved for high priority needs, consistent with water sharing plan rules and the NSW Extreme Events Policy.

River and overland flows in the northern inland valleys in January and up to the end of February 2020 resulting from localised rainfall events were protected from most commercial extraction. In the Barwon-Darling restrictions were lifted later in March to ensure that flows could travel down and reach Menindee Lakes. These restrictions ensured that critical town, domestic and stock and refuge pools were replenished and river systems were connected for the first time for many years.

As a result of these restrictions, flows began arriving at Menindee Lakes from 10 March 2020 and provided water for a much-needed release along the full length of the Lower Darling. Flows reached the junction with the Murray River in April 2020, providing connectivity along the full length of the Barwon and Darling Rivers for the first time in many years. By end of June 2020 670 GL had entered Menindee Lakes. View more information on the North-West Flows and Lower Darling Releases.

How we’re responding

In light of these unprecedented conditions, the NSW government is responding in a range of ways to support those most affected by water shortages:

1. Clearer policy direction

2. On-ground measures

  • Construction of emergency infrastructure works, such as temporary weirs, pipelines and access to lower levels in storages to extend town water and other high priority supplies for as long as possible
  • Changes to river system operations to preserve remaining supplies for critical human water needs
  • A coordinated approach across government to mitigate poor water quality and fish death events, including emergency response planning, increased monitoring, artificial oxygenation and fish relocation
  • Appointment in January 2019 of the Regional Town Water Supply coordinator to ensure every regional town in NSW has safe, clean drinking water
  • Establishment in November 2019 of the Office of Drought Response to better coordinate support delivered by all NSW Government agencies for farmers, communities, businesses and towns affected by drought
  • In total, the NSW Government has committed over $2 billion to its Drought Emergency Relief Package including:
    • Emergency assistance for towns for infrastructure such a bores and water carting if necessary
    • Interest free or low interest loans to farmers for water and other on-farm infrastructure
    • Transport subsidies for primary producers for transport of stock, feed and water
    • Waiving a range of government fees, including fixed water charges
  • Details of NSW Government Emergency Relief funding provided to local water utilities can be viewed in the interactive map.
  • The Government has also committed $1 billion to the Safe and Secure Program for longer term water security and sewerage projects for regional towns.

3. Better communication and coordination

Drought-affected valleys

The current drought stage and an overview of the situation in each valley as at 9 November 2020 is provided in the table below. You can also download a high resolution version of the map (JPG 6.5 MB).

Valleys Drought stage
Peel River
Recovering - de-escalated from Stage 3 severe in November 2020.

Stage 2 - Emerging drought

Stage 2

Belubula River
Recovering - de-escalated from Stage 3 severe in October 2020.

Stage 2 - Emerging drought

Stage 2

Upper Namoi River

  • Recovering - de-escalated from Stage 3 severe in May 2020.

Lower Namoi River

  • Recovering - de-escalated from Stage 3 severe in November 2020.

Stage 2 - Emerging drought

Stage 2

Stage 2 - Emerging drought

Stage 2

Lower Darling
Recovering - de-escalated from Stage 3 severe in May 2020.

Stage 2 - Emerging drought

Stage 2

Barwon-Darling River
Recovering - de-escalated from Stage 3 severe in May 2020.

Stage 2 - Emerging drought

Stage 2

Macquarie River
Stage 1 normal operations de-escalated from recovering in September 2020. 
Cudgegong eased to stage 1 normal operations in August 2020.

Stage 1 - Normal management

Stage 1

Gwydir River
Recovering–de-escalated from Stage 3 severe in March 2020.

Stage 2 - Emerging drought

Stage 2

Border Rivers
Recovering–de-escalated from Stage 3 severe in August 2020.

Stage 2 - Emerging drought

Stage 2

Lachlan River
Normal operations–de-escalated from recovering in September 2020.

Stage 1 - Normal management

Stage 1

Murray River
Normal operations de-escalated from stage 2 emerging in July 2020.

Stage 1 - Normal management

Stage 1

Hunter River
Normal operations de-escalated from stage 2 emerging in August 2020.

Stage 1 - Normal management

Stage 1

Critical issues

Algal blooms occur across the state and can contribute to fish deaths, although the incidence and risk reduces as temperatures cool. Algal blooms impact on the use of river water and dams for recreation and impact on aquatic life. Towns also need to provide additional water treatment for water affected by algae. For the latest algal alerts go to WaterNSW.

With increasing flows, there is a risk of hypoxic (low oxygen) blackwater events occurring.

Information on the location of fish kills in NSW and the likely causes is available from the Department of Primary Industries

The department’s temporary water restrictions protect essential supplies and environmental releases.

Drought conditions have led most NSW rural towns to impose some level of water restrictions. Information on specific town restrictions are available from the local councils' websites or can be searched on the website of the Bureau of Meteorology.